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Teaching beyond post-modernism in a digitalised society: Opinion

The rapid and exponential growth of the internet over the past 40 years has changed the nature of society. Indeed, at the end of the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the internet is our defining medium. This has implications for student learning and, consequently, teacher pedagogy.

In the modernist era, beginning around 1500 with early modern philosophy and ending around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, truth came to be conceived of as an objective reality to be disseminated in a rational, scientific and systematic fashion. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), who became his own “ism”, defined modernist methodology. Kant’s theory (paralleling the sixteenth century astronomer, Copernicus) endeavoured to eschew the human mind as a passive vessel so as to, by contrast, depict it as an active mechanism for thought in cognition. As Peter Rickman puts it: “instead of viewing the mind as the passive centre of observation, Kant viewed the mind as an active participator in observation. More radically, the consequence of this theory was that the mind creates and shapes its experiences.”

However, it was Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the French mathematician and philosopher, who epitomised modernism with the aphorism, “I think, therefore I am”. As one thought as an individual, with the enlightened awareness of living within a post-medieval society, characterised by its perceptions of religious fate and feudal hierarchy, knowledge was comprehended as being factual, scientific and objective. Indeed, these facts could be tested and verified. In social theory, states Robert Samuels, “modernity represents the rise of capitalism, science and democracy through the rhetoric of universal reason and equality”. Further, later modernity, commencing around 1800 (identified by the theorist, Charles Darwin (1809–1882), existentialist Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)), is to be identified with industrialisation and a mechanised workforce. In higher order thinking observations gave way to analysis.

In post-modernism, however, truth became more subjective and based on the experiences of those seeking to discern it. The imperative of truth was replaced with the importance of relationships and the need to respect the contextual reality of others. In this worldview analysis gave way to meta-analysis. Instead of the imperative of individual thought, born from the instruction of rationalist philosophy, there was a collective interpretation, epitomised by social media. Therefore, a concern for empirical realities, based on rational thought and a thorough investigation of the facts, became viewed through the lens of subjective and collaborated experiences. Therefore, according to philosopher Alan Kirby, postmodernism emphasised the elusiveness of meaning and knowledge.

One can now discern a further shift in thought. Indeed, post-modernism has been replaced by a new dominant world-view. In this new era, the internet dominates. Not that the internet was not a feature of post-modernism. However, accessing knowledge is no longer the main issue. As much as its content is created, the internet, in and of itself, creates realities and shapes the lives of those who access it. In this, I am not simply referring to influences, although the internet remains a dominant influence in the shaping of young minds. According to Nicholas Carr brains are being rewired neurologically to think in entirely new ways.

The result is that the world is now seen and experienced through emerging and alternative world views, relationships are entered into under an entirely new set of assumptions and beliefs, and knowledge is gained and conceived of on the basis of a totally reconstructed paradigm.

Today, as Facebook is designated to an older generation, Instagram and Snapchat, containing only images, videos and brief phonetic messages, have emerged as the new ultimates. Here, it is not a matter of only being liked, but seen and encountered. The distinction between producers and consumers has also been obliterated, as everyone is seen to be a contributor, with the importance of the “expert” being significantly undermined.

In its stead a new reality is emerging that is shaping a worldview taking society into a new phase. While Kirby referred to this emerging society as pseudo-modernism and Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker define metamodernism (from metaxis, between, since metamodernism is said to oscillate between modernism and post-modernism), Basulto, following Nicolàs Bourriaud has termed the new era, “Alter-modernism”. “Alter”, because it is characterised by altered perspectives. It is an alternative modernism. In it, the meta-analysis of post-modernism gives way to a collective trans-critical imagination. In the new reality, the usual constructions are broken down and thought, with its accompanying behaviours and norms, moves beyond established conventions. The imagination replaces empirical evidence, viewed through the lens of experience, and is seen to have no limitations. In place of evidence is the notion of fantasy, created by internet experiences. Indeed, imagination is not constrained by facts or knowledge, but tests possibilities and even embraces that which has no possibility. Indeed, the internet has enabled one to cross boundaries to create ethics, morality, belief and values that are fluid. In this, there are no facts, but experiences formed through “surface dipping” into the world of a multitudinous array of anonymous sites and posts.

It spells the end of a natural inclination for critical analysis, as in modernism, or even of a subjective and relativised view of reality, as in post-modernism. In this emerging reality, a neo-romanticism oscillates between modernism’s enthusiasm and post-modernism’s irony; between projection and perception, form and unformable, determinism and apathy, and coherence and chaos. In this new paradigm, one can discern large proportions of a generation motivated by a regular stream of images, without commentary, and devoid of any particular cause, other than to empower a culture headed to no particular destination. Consequently, the tendency is to experience the cultural moment, in contradistinction to seeking advancement for the long term through the usual conventions of enterprise, creating boundaries and being self-disciplined for the purpose of pursuing excellence.

However, as we delve deeper into the reaches of creative thinking, the implications become quite alarming. Ultimately, what is championed in the neo-romanticism of alter-modernism is the delirium of untruth and the allure of connectedness, without the depth required for perceptive and insightful understandings or worthwhile and enriching relationships. Indeed, the cyber lifestyle stores very little to rely on for future emotional maturity or creative thinking. This is accompanied by the demise of the private life, now shared openly and frequently, but more significantly the secret life, which is now a shared commodity. The demise of the secret life spells the diminution of introspective reflection, where creative and independent thinking takes place. It is a disappearing safe place to create dreams, energise hope and investigate possibilities. Consequently, the kind of critical thinking that is required to demonstrate higher order thinking has only limited experiences to rely upon. Therefore, those students who are consciously resisting this trend are the ones who succeed. To be sure, capital, whether it be intellectual, psychological or emotional, only emerges after effective investments have been made to ensure its emergence, or sufficient intervention has been enacted to pave the way for its establishment.

Sigmund Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind provides an interpretative framework that aids in discovering a reasoning behind these trends and accompanying behaviours. Freud described the unconscious mind as being like the unseen part of an iceberg. Traditionally, as Freud understood it, the superego (comprising of learned values one gains from family, religion and society) seeks to persuade the ego (or decision-making part of the brain) to turn to moral values instead of pleasure seeking. It enables one to differentiate between right and wrong, the needs of the present and the needs of the future, and one’s role in society in relation to others. However, if the traditional feeders of the superego are replaced by superficial encounters and a plethora of posted values, then its ability to inform the ego rapidly breaks down and becomes dysfunctional, as the ability to differentiate, through discernment, diminishes or is obliterated. What is left, in Freud’s analysis, is a robust Id. That is, the part of the brain that responds immediately to wants and desires. Since the submerged part of the iceberg has been radically altered in alter-modernism, the tip of the iceberg behaves quite differently. The internet, with its propensity for pleasure, without a deep emotional or analytical investment, is the ideal place for the Id to flourish. This is manifested in flicking between screens for instant gratification and dopamine rushes, instead of differentiating by following learned conventions, including instructions regarding the virtues of appropriate boundaries, self-discipline and the norms of civil society.

There is enough research to provide evidence of a correlation between the undisciplined allure of the internet and poor performance. This is primarily manifested in multitasking. That is, flicking between sites in the “fear of missing out (FOMO)”, rather than focusing on the task at hand. Indeed, when multitasking is attempted, performance slows or there are more mistakes. A study by Karpinksi et.al. in 2013, compared multitasking behaviours among students in Europe with those in the United States. They found that students in the United States who were distracted by multitasking suffered with a lower GPA. However, their European counterparts who multitasked were not adversely effected. They discovered two reasons for this. Firstly, United States students multitasked more. Secondly, European students were more strategic in their multitasking. For example, they would delay reading a message and responding when working on a task.

The allure of the internet is that it facilitates the imagination, creates experiences and allows for surface interactions without discernment. Further, the internet, following the ways of Freud’s Id, provides a false feeling of control, autonomy and empowerment, as the viewer feels free to make choices regarding the interactions they are desiring. There are not a few among this group who gaze, open eyed and transfixed, into the cyber world of fanciful possibilities, enchanted by its mesmerising glow. Therefore, in the new order of things, the internet is not simply a vehicle for gaining information and communicating effectively, but a means of illusionary autonomy and control, that facilitates a life devoid of the usual differentiation that enables one to form boundaries and follow appropriate conventions.

Therefore, there are two significant areas for reflection. Firstly, a consideration of the importance of nurturing independent and critical thinking, so as to form the supergo into a robust, creative, discerning and constructive mechanism that will facilitate higher order thinking. Secondly, and subsequently, the importance of an intentional approach to using the internet in a managed, scheduled and thoughtful manner. Indeed, students appear to flourish when the internet fails to dominate, but is of assistance to the disciplined, independent and creative thinker.

John Lewis is the Academic Coordinator at Prescott College in Adelaide and has a PhD from the University of New England.  

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  1. I sent this to a few teachers I know, but they didn’t want to get involved with it. Too difficult to read they said. I believe you are onto something. Do you think this trend is irreversible? Is this really the beginings of another modernity? Don’t you think young students can be equally at home as a modernist and a post-modernist?

    I’d like to hear what other readers think.

    • Hi, I don’t think the trend is irreversible. However, outstanding students will need to be in a position to have
      managed their interaction with the internet from an early age. Others, older students will need a thoughtful
      and managed changed-behaviour program well before Year 12.
      Also, the workplace will demand higher standards of conduct that many many will struggle to adapt to.

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